At precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on Oct. 10, 1963, lightbulbs blinked on in Montana’s Yaak River Valley. Belatedly, central-station power—distributed by Northern Lights Inc., a co-op based across the state line in Sandpoint, Idaho—had arrived in this remote, heavily forested area 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
The lights came on when a switch was thrown at a new Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) substation near the small town of Troy, Montana.
“You are now in the position to leapfrog decades to become full partners in the 20th century,” the regional power supplier’s Russell Holt told the dozen or so locals gathered for the dedication ceremony.
Northern Lights had built 21 miles of line to serve some 30 families, a U.S. Forest Service station, a one-room school, and a sawmill. Twenty-seven more miles of line were built the next year, reaching another 47 Yaak River Valley homes.
For the 17 year-round workers (up to 60 in the summer) and their families at the Forest Service station in Sylvanite, electrification created a “new normal.” Before, they had to wait until 5 p.m., when the station’s diesel generator came on for five hours, to use appliances and power tools.
Buster Bray had spent $180 a month on diesel fuel to generate electricity for his grocery store, gas station, and bar in Yaak, a hamlet 31 miles from the main highway. He hoped to cut that cost in half.
It all started in 1961, when a Yaak resident approached the co-op about getting service in the valley. But it didn’t pencil out. The cost of cutting a 40-foot right-of-way through dense forest was too high.
Then General Manager Bill Nordeen and his staff thought of an alternative: share the General Telephone Company’s right-of-way by putting a crossarm on every pole. Power supply would come from BPA.
Negotiations with the telephone company and BPA went smoothly. A new substation design that had just been developed by a BPA engineer was perfect for the project. Soon, Northern Lights crews were stringing wire.
People in the valley wanted the comforts that would come with electricity, but they also wanted to boost their local economy.
“The extension of electric service into the Yaak River Valley will stimulate lumber and mineral production as well as tourism,” Nordeen said at the time.
Two businessmen who saw this promise were Bruce Leighty, owner of the sawmill, and rancher/farmer David Winn. Leighty employed 25 men in the mill and 25 in the woods, but he couldn’t keep them employed year-round while paying $8,000 to $9,000 annually for diesel to run four generators. Anticipating electricity, he added a 300-horsepower planer to his operation.
Winn, for his part, planned to double production at his 193-acre farm by installing an electric irrigation system. He’d lived too long in “grandfather’s time,” he said. “Now we can join the rest of the country in the 20th century.”
At the time, Northern Lights served some 4,000 consumers in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Today it’s close to 19,000.
Information for this article came from “The Lights Go On in Yaak River Valley,” from the January 1963 issue of RE Magazine.